Synagogue finds new life in diversity Immigrants: Declining Baltimore County congregation reaches out to area's Russian Jews, who are eager to learn more about their long-suppressed faith.

October 01, 1997|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

In a Maryland section article yesterday about Beth Isaac Adath Israel Congregation, the last name of Mark Wartzman was misspelled in a photo caption.

The Sun regrets the error.

The shofar, a ram's horn blown at the start of the Jewish High Holy Days in a call to repentance, will sound once more this year at Beth Isaac Adath Israel Congregation.

Last year, the leadership of this Baltimore County synagogue with an aging and dwindling membership decided to close, either to relocate or merge with another synagogue.


But on this Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year that begins at sundown, Beth Isaac will celebrate a new beginning thanks to a group of Russian Jewish immigrants living nearby. Although few of the immigrants attended the synagogue, when they realized this tangible symbol of their identity was about to vanish, they took the necessary step to keep it open: They became members.

"It's a rejuvenation," said Harry Karp, the energetic synagogue president who is in constant motion as two dozen men recited maariv, the evening prayers, earlier this week. "And it's an opportunity to try to give them back what communism stole from them. Here they can do things that over there they would have been arrested for and sent to Siberia."

Beth Isaac sits on Crest Heights Road just outside the city line. It is adjacent to Millbrook Park Apartments, a complex of 32 buildings that has become a center of the Russian Jewish immigrant community.

The Russians make up 62 percent of the 450 families at Millbrook Park, said apartment manager Fred Sachs. Russian immigrants began arriving in large numbers in Baltimore after the Soviet Union fell and the former Communist state began allowing Jews to leave.

"When they first came here, we sort of became the pioneer in accepting them into our community," Sachs said.

The first outreach to the newly arrived Russians began when Paysach Diskind started knocking on their doors. Diskind, an Orthodox Jew who briefly studied to be a rabbi, started working as a volunteer with the Russian community after a 1989 trip to the former Soviet Union. He was impressed by how deeply ingrained their Jewish identity was and yet how little they knew about their religion, the product of living under a government that was officially atheist.

"There was no one here in Baltimore who was showing them what it means to be Jewish," said Diskind, who started an outreach program called ACHIM, a Hebrew word meaning brothers, that is funded by foundations and charitable donations.

Diskind learned Russian and became a resource for Russian Jews at Millbrook Park, helping them navigate in their new country. Still, religious observance was not a priority and Diskind did not press the issue -- until word started circulating early in the summer of 1996 that Beth Isaac was going to close.

The membership of Beth Isaac was down to 40 people. The president of the synagogue was in his 90s. "The synagogue was literally dying," Diskind said.

Rabbi Manuel M. Poliakoff, rabbi emeritus of Beth Isaac, said that when Beth Isaac moved to its location in the mid-1960s from a building at Cottage and Oswego avenues in Park Heights, there was a local neighborhood that supported it. Gradually, people started dying or moving to the suburbs.

The Russian Jews of Millbrook Park Apartments weren't members of the synagogue, but many children attended programs. The community panicked at the thought of it closing.

"How could they close the synagogue with this large a community living here?" Arkady Resman, who arrived from Ukraine 2 1/2 years ago, said through a translator. "The synagogue was like a club for the kids. The kids loved going there."

When the Russians heard that Beth Isaac might close, "they were very upset," said Lyudmila Lipsman, a Millbrook Park resident. "The people cried. They wrote letters" to religious leaders in Baltimore.

"They came to me and said, 'Paysach, what are we going to do?' " Diskind said. "You know what you should do? Start going to synagogue!

"You go, and I'll come and I'll do something in Russian for you," Diskind said.

At one meeting, Diskind said, they collected $1,600 in one hour as partial payment for 50 memberships to Beth Isaac, which cost $100 a year. The membership has more than doubled in the past year, to more than 100.

Now, Beth Isaac has a Russian flavor. Signs in Russian help new members follow the prayers. "The announcements on the Sabbath are hysterical," said Karp, the synagogue president. "They're trilingual -- Yiddish, English and Russian. It's such a mixed group, you have to say it in everything and hope somebody will pick it up."

Although the synagogue is growing, the immigrant community is not yet able to financially support the expansion, so some philanthropists have stepped in. Seats for the High Holy Days cost $50, relatively inexpensive but still steep for the Russian families, so someone donated money to pay for 30 seats. Developer Howard Brown is renovating a chapel.

And there has been a teaching process for the immigrants who have never been educated in their faith. Tomorrow afternoon, Diskind will conduct a "beginner's service" that will take them step-by-step through Rosh Hashana.

"For the majority of the immigrants, they know nothing. They are not familiar with the prayer book, let alone Hebrew," Diskind said. "They know Rosh Hashana, but they're not sure what Rosh Hashana is all about."

But they are willing to learn.

"The synagogue is important because our kids didn't know what it meant to be Jewish," said Larisa Gozenput. "It's hard for us to give them the knowledge. Without the synagogue, it's not possible."

High Holy Days

Rosh Hashana: The beginning of a 10-day observance, it starts at sundown today and marks the Jewish New Year of 5758, according to the Jewish calendar.

Yom Kippur: The culimination of the Holy Days is this day of atonement on Oct. 10. It is a time for fasting and repentance.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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